No warm fuzzies for iSCSI?

SMBs have been slow to adopt iSCSI so far, but that may change as virtualization spreads

Lately, it seems like it's all about disk space. They're no longer file servers but document repositories with multiple versions of single documents saved ad infinitum -- just in case of a finger-pointing fest. Not so much the trouble with Word files, but your average PowerPoint file is now over 20MB, easy. Five or six versions of each of those multiplied by dozens of sales people and hundreds of target customers, and suddenly, you're talking real space. To say nothing of photo albums, corporate podcast libraries, online training videos, and gigabytes and gigabytes of e-mail. Hell, my home-movie collection just topped 150GB.

For the home-movie mogul, it's about space and little else. For the business user, however, it's also about access speed, reliability, and manageability. That's where iSCSI was supposed to make serious inroads into more than just your dedicated database server or SAN box. But after looking for those jobs for a year, I'm just not seeing it.

And not for lack of support on the software side, either. Microsoft's Windows Storage Server (WSS) 2003 R2 is probably the most popular business-class NAS operating system from a commercial OEM perspective -- which is weird because you'd think a free Linux distro would do well here -- but I digress. And while Microsoft could easily have ignored the iSCSI platform from a small and medium-sized biz usage perspective, it didn't.

It's called Windows Unified Data Storage Server 2003, but it might as well be called WSS for iSCSI. Before the Microsoftees send some big Northwestern lumberjack to pound me, however, I'll quickly point out that iSCSI support isn't the only different in the WUDSS package. There's (supposedly) a friendlier NAS setup routine and better back-end management support. But by and large, the big diff here is that WUDSS does iSCSI while WSS doesn't. Microsoft also makes it very clear that WUDSS is aimed specifically at the SMB space, even more so than WSS since WUDSS has the friendlier (i.e. easy enough for small-biz customers) setup and management interface.

And yet, so far, there's little take-up of WUDSS by small business storage hardware vendors. Microsoft points to an HP's ProLiant DL585 G2 storage server as a prime WUDSS candidate, but that's hardly your average small business box. Talking to Iomega about its new high-end (for Iomega) 450r NAS box earlier this week, I was told flat out by Chris Romoser, Iomega's senior director of worldwide communications, that the company had no plans to use WUDSS simply because its customers weren't asking for it. And Iomega is an unabashed and highly enthusiastic small-business-oriented company.

Another vendor targeting SMB is Gateway, which just announced a slew of new servers that I'll be writing about in the SMB IT blog shortly. Gateway tends to go heavy on disk to differentiate its servers from the competition, but this has the side effect that most of these boxes can double as storage servers if you max out the disk options. But again, whereas Gateway is happy to preconfigure one of these machines with WSS, even its dedicated NAS boxes don't have a WUDSS option because Gateway is into SATA or SAS drives. Period. You can get them to build you a WUDSS box custom, but you'll be sending them the iSCSI disks, the controller, and the WUDSS software, too.

Overall, I can see why smaller businesses simply haven't hopped onto the iSCSI bandwagon. It's a high-performance technology that simply won't be stressed enough in most SMB scenarios such that users might actually see a difference -- even for traditionally disk-intensive applications like database serving. Give virtualization a little time to spread into the SMB segment, however, and we may see that change.

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